Roush Fenway's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had looked in complete control of the 30th Annual Kroger 200 Nationwide Series race at Lucas Oil Raceway on Saturday night.
Hours earlier he had taken pole position at the very end of the qualifying session, his fourth pole in 60 starts - three of them in 2011. His lap time of 22.806s on the 0.686 mile short oval in Indianapolis was just 0.04s ahead of Cup regular Brad Keselowski who in turn was just 0.009s faster than Cup championship leader Carl Edwards, who lined up alongside Justin Allgaier on the second row of the grid.
Stenhouse would convert pole position to lead 188 of the eventual 204 laps of the race, only dropping out of the front spot twice during pit stops under cautions, the first 175 laps of the race being relatively quiet and punctuated only by two debris cautions. The race made up for that in the last 29 laps however.
First there was a multiple-car accident that started with Tim Andrews and Michael Annett, and then caught up Steve Wallace in turns 3 and 4 and which needed a 12 minute red flag suspension to clear up. "Tried to accelerate away from those guys and got sideways," said Wallace, Annett's teammate, of how and why he had arrived sideways and at speed at the scene of the accident to give all three a hefty slam.
At the next restart on lap 184 following pit stops, second-place man Trevor Bayne's engine blew and dropped a load of fluid on the track that required a clean-up, and just as the field were preparing to go back to racing it was Justin Allgaier's turn to exit competition when his #31 caught fire with an oil pump problem, Allgaier himself receiving help from Reed Sorenson's crew in pit lane to extricate himself before things got seriously toasty in the cockpit.
That set up a double-file restart on lap 196 with Stenhouse joined on the front row by Keselowski who had been somewhat anonymous for much of the middle portion of the evening's racing. Keselowski leaned hard on Stenhouse when the green flag came out to take the position, and a fightback by Stenhouse was thwarted by the track going back to caution after Elliott Sadler spun behind them and collected his Kevin Harvick Inc. teammate Austin Dillon on the way.
That sent the race into overtime and a green-white-chequered attempt at a finish at the restart on lap 202, and despite a late spin by Brian Scott the race made it to the official finish line with Keselowski holding on to the lead while Stenhouse came under severe pressure from James Buescher. The two crossed the line in a dead heat according to the timing screens, and it took several minutes of intensive review of the video footage for the officials to determine that in fact Buescher had just clinched the runners-up spot.
"I'm not sure what happened at the end of that race," a dazed Keselowski said of the final wild minutes of the evening. "I've been coming to this race track for years. I've been to Victory Lane as a team guy and a mechanic but never a driver. It's so special to win here.
"I'm going to have to go back and watch it on TV to fully understand what happened," he admitted. "The #16 car blew up. The #31 caught on fire. We ended up restarting in second position on the outside lane ... If the race was two of three laps longer, I'm sure Ricky would have drove around us."
It's Keselowski's 14th Nationwide victory in 159 starts, which makes him only the third driver in Nationwide this year to post multiple wins (the others being Kyle Busch with six victories and Carl Edwards with five.) Edwards himself was hampered by a late pit lane speeding penalty on lap 180 which dropped him to 14th place for the restart and not enough time to make it to the front by the end of the race.
The main draw for Saturday's race had been expected to be X Games star Travis Pastrana making his NASCAR Nationwide Series début. However, Pastrana was injured in competition
on Thursday night and suffered fractures to his right foot and ankle after crashing performing a complex motorcycle trick, and was forced to pull out of the Indianapolis race.
Last year's winner, Kyle Busch, opted out of defending his title here in the Nationwide Series' final outing at Lucas Oil Raceway - previously known as Indianapolis Raceway Park - where it has raced every year since the start of the series in 1982. It has had the same sponsor (supermarket chain Kroger) ever since that first outing 29 years ago. Keselowski goes into the record books as the 23rd and last driver to win in 30 races here.
Full race results, qualifying and practice